The Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about faith in one of its very first paragraphs, defining it as man’s response to God. I understood the meaning of this definition in the circumstances related to my conversion that took place a few years ago. A thirty second experience turned an atheist of twenty five years into a believer and transformed his life completely!
In those thirty seconds God gave me the gift of faith. This isn’t a gift that God gives exclusively to a select few; He gives it to all who want it. If it was so dramatically manifested with me, it wasn’t because there was something extraordinary about me. Rather, it was because I was so blind, I had to be hit on the head with the truth to be able to see it. This is not to my glory but to my shame. There was redemption, however, in the manner in which I responded to God in faith.
Responding in faith involves belief and trust in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as our Lord and Savior. It involves repentance for all our sins and a determination never to sin again. It involves a total surrender of our wills and lives to God. It involves total and complete obedience to Jesus and His Word as a way of life. And, finally, it involves a heartfelt devotion and attachment to God that expresses itself in love, trust, gratitude and loyalty.
Most of us don’t respond to the gift of faith by doing anything more than tucking it into some back closet of our lives like a claim token to be kept in safe-keeping for the Day of Judgment. On that day we expect to tell God as we stand before Him that we believed in His Son Jesus, so could He please open the gates of heaven and let us pass. Many of us are in for a very big surprise. Yes, faith in Jesus is the only condition that God requires for salvation, but faith is an ongoing activity that must grow and be strengthened with every day that passes. That is what the Holy Spirit teaches us in the subject.
The lessons in faith are more arduous and more nerve-racking than any we will ever face in the School of the Holy Spirit. But before we begin, a little story of how an apostle named Peter walked in faith on water one day! Walking on water is a wonderful metaphor for faith. Not only does it strike a vivid picture, it is particularly apt as well, and I will use it right through this chapter.
One day Jesus worked one of the greatest miracles he had ever performed. He multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish to feed thousands of people. After all had eaten, He told His disciples to get into the boat and wait for him while he dismissed the crowds. By the time Jesus was done, it was quite late and the boat was a considerable distance away from land. Rather than tell the disciples to bring the boat back to shore, Jesus simply walked towards them–on the water.
The disciples were terrified to see what they imagined was a ghost, but Jesus quickly dispelled their fear. Peter’s immediate reaction was bravado when he realized who it was. He told Jesus that he wanted to walk on the water too. “Come,” said Jesus.
Peter got out of the boat. I can only imagine how thrilled the disciple must have been as he walked toward his master, the water lapping at his feet. But a moment later, his delight turned to fear as the wind began to blow. Peter promptly lost his nerve and began to sink. Immediately Jesus reached out to him and helped him back into the boat, chiding him gently as He did so. “You of little faith,” He said. “Why did you doubt?”
I can empathize with Peter and, indeed, with all of us who lose faith when the wind begins to blow. When our jobs are secure, when there is a sizable balance in our bank accounts, when our children are in good health, we could probably do a break-dance on water! But let the wind begin to blow just a little bit–let our jobs be threatened, let our finances get low, let the doctor tell us that our child needs to come for some further medical tests–and we instantly begin to sink. And like Peter, we cry out to Jesus to save us. There is no shame in that. But there is shame if we keep sinking all the time, because it means that we are not growing in faith at all.
Faith does not grow overnight. Like everything else in the School of the Holy Spirit, it is a gradual process of education. In the early part of it, the Holy Spirit holds our hand as we step out of the boat and tells us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. He knows how afraid we are, especially because faith is a lot about relinquishing control into God’s hands.
When I was new to the faith I was terrified. Not only was God a largely unknown entity, the“rationality” I had placed all my trust in all my life kept kicking in, telling me that I was responsible for the circumstances in my life. Very gently, the Holy Spirit taught me that I had control over nothing, but that I was safe in the hands of God, who had control over everything.
I had one of my first lessons three weeks after I was released from jail, when I went to attend a court hearing for my sentencing. Nobody was expecting me to get more than a fine, which was standard for an offence such as mine, so I was alone in court impatiently waiting to put this horrible nightmare behind me. When the verdict was announced, however, I discovered to my utter horror that I had been sentenced to a month of prison time!
In the phone call that I was allowed before being shunted into a holding cell, I called up my wife and told her to see if she could file an appeal and arrange bail. She would have to hurry. The weekend was upon us and the court only worked half the day. She had less than two hours to get both the appeal and bail papers filed, otherwise I would spend the next two days in jail. The papers required the signatures of three judges, but before that they had to be typed out and attested. Hurrying from office to office, clerk to clerk, and finally judge to judge, she got the third signature just as the last judge was leaving the courthouse for the day. She got the papers across to me just a few minutes before we were to be transported across to the central jail.
God is the hero of the last minute rescue, and as I was to discover in the days that followed, this was the rule rather than the exception. He never steps in to save us a moment before necessary. There is, of course, a very good reason for this. God is not the only one walking by our side. The enemy walks by our side too, waiting for the opportunity to trip us over. If God steps in too soon, the enemy has plenty of time to mess things up, forcing God to step in yet again. So he simply leaves it for the very last moment and just when it seems like we’re about to fall off the edge, he reaches out and saves us.
This can be extremely nerve-racking, especially in the early days, because there is the constant urge to do something yourself. “Why do you want to walk on water?” the mind says. “Take the road!” Or if you are determined to walk in faith it urges, “Fine, walk on water if you insist, but carry a life jacket just in case.”
When we walk in faith, we never take the road. Nor do we carry a life saver. We simply step out the boat and walk, secure in the knowledge that our teacher is right by our side and will ensure we don’t sink.
Eventually, we learn to walk on water, but our faith crumbles again the moment the wind begins to blow harder. For example, it is way past your teenage daughter’s curfew time and there is no word about where she might be. Do you worry? There are less than twenty four hours for a check you issued to clear and there aren’t any funds in the account. Do you begin to panic? Your father has just suffered a heart attack and is in the hospital across the globe awaiting bypass surgery. Do you get anxious? Your ex-wife is filing for custody of your children and you don’t have a hope of winning. Do you despair?
We should understand these types of episodes for what they are: faith builders. Some of my spiritual brothers are fond of terming these misfortunes “satanic attacks” and while the enemy’s hand might very well be in play, we need to remember at all times that God is in control. He can reverse anything that the enemy does with no effort at all! God can bring your daughter home without a scratch, fill your bank account with all the money needed ten minutes before the check is presented, not only let your father have a perfect operation but make his heart like steel, and reconcile you to your ex-wife making all issues of child custody redundant! Not only does this attitude place our problems in the correct perspective, we will find them lessons in faith because we will see–as I have seen–that God comes through all the time, every time! All we need is the faith that He will, even if it isn’t always in the way we want, but in the way we need.
Part of this faith comes from understanding the faithfulness of God, an important lesson in itself. If we remain in God and let God remain in us, God will never let us down. If the enemy dares to enter territory that we have secured by our faithfulness to God, God will turn him into chopped liver. Do not, however, walk into the enemy’s den to play with him and expect God’s protection.
Another part of this faith comes from understanding that God is our Father, and as such, is responsible for us. He will meet our needs, though there is a requisite for that–a healthy relationship with Him. If you have a son who lives away from home and shows up only when he wants something, you will not be too disposed to give him what he asks for. However, if your son has a warm, loving relationship with you, you will do your best to ensure that all his needs are met. It is no different with God, even though He tends to be gracious even with those who aren’t quite as gracious with Him.
To grow truly strong in faith, all we really need to do is remember the times that God has come through for us in the past. Unfortunately, we tend to forget the things He has done for us, very much like the Israelites did throughout history. Their worst bout of “amnesia” was after they crossed the Red Sea. Despite God performing one of the greatest miracles He had in the sight of man, parting the waters of a huge sea and letting an entire nation cross over to freedom, the Israelites soon forgot what He had done and doubted His ability to save them when faced with their next crisis. All they needed to do was remember all the occasions in the past when God had rescued them, and believe that if He had saved them before, He would do so again. That is all we need to remember too.
As we understand these and the several other truths that the Spirit will teach us as we grow in faith, we will eventually reach a point when blowing winds do little more than make us shiver with the cold. And it is here, when we have become confident in our ability to walk on water regardless of how strong the wind blows, we will have our final lesson for the school term. In the middle of a particularly raging torrent, God will disappear!
I went through such a storm that lasted nearly half a year, buffeted about like a piece of cork on an angry ocean. I was bruised and battered, not knowing where I was headed anymore. I had lost all the clarity that I had just a few months earlier. My spiritual director tried to help me, but there was little that he could do other than tell me that this was part of growing up; part of the journey that all saints went through. They were encouraging words but at that moment in time being a saint was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted the storm to be over. At other times I felt it would be better to simply drown. People who knew me thought I was losing my mind and began distancing themselves from me, not realizing what I was going through. That hurt, but nothing hurt more than the absence of God. I had come so close to God over the past several months, I truly felt like His son. Now I felt abandoned.
But I hung on grimly, fighting to stay afloat, believing through all the doubts that began surfacing in my mind, that God was real and that He would come through again one day. It took a long time, but He did. And then I realized that the lessons He taught me during that period were invaluable and contributed more to my growth than anything before or after it–especially the lessons in faith.
This phase of growth, which St John of the Cross refers to as the “Dark Night of the Soul”, merits an entire book to itself but as it is not one I will be writing any time soon, I want to leave you with just one note. When you go through such a dark night–and you will at some point if you progress in this school–try to remember one thing if you can, because it might make the difference between your success and failure. Remember that there is an end to the night, interminable though it might seem. The dawn will eventually rise, and when it does, you will be a new person. You will be able to walk on water for the rest of your life, not only when the sea is rough, but when you are in the middle of a raging torrent and you can’t see Jesus anywhere in sight. You will have true faith.
Unlike the other subjects, there are distinct levels here and we can tell exactly where we are placed.
Level 1–Basic faith:
A belief and profession in Christ as Savior. Repentance. A slow yielding of our will. We have the courage to step out of the boat onto the water.
Level 2–Intermediate faith:
Our devotion of God grows, as does our trust, love, gratitude and loyalty. We become increasingly obedient. We begin to walk on water.
Level 3–Advanced faith:
We trust God completely. We have tremendous love for him. We are profoundly grateful to him. We are utterly loyal. We can walk on water even when the wind begins to blow because we can see Jesus right in front of us.
We can walk on water in the midst of a typhoon even when we can’t see Jesus anymore. We are ready for the University of the Holy Spirit where, among other things, we’ll learn to tell mountains to go bathe themselves in the sea.